Life in the Conservative Party now would be an entertaining spectator sport if only the Tories didn’t also have the responsibility of running the country. The only consolation they derive from the in-fighting, the talk of splits and the almost complete absence of serious governance is that they are luxuries in which, unusually, they can indulge because of the strife in the Labour Party and the near non-existence of the Liberal Democrats. That might suggest, given the improbability of either of those parties raising their game soon, that the Tory wars will continue unimpeded, and little will change.
Theresa May thinks so. The agenda for her party conference suggests her speech will be given in the context of “campaigning for 2022”. It demands an extreme sense of humour to swallow that. Her party, which should have been campaigning from the moment it failed to win the 2017 election, has created no remote suspicion of doing so, and it is hard to believe it will start now. Its leader and chairman seem to think that exposing their opponents’ weaknesses is vulgar, so have failed to challenge the climate of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, or the shadow chancellor’s proposed economic policies, or indeed anything else to which rank-and-file Tories take extreme exception. That failure, a combination of a lack of conviction and indecision, explains the appeal to many Tory members of Boris Johnson.
Johnson’s foremost selling point now is as the man who will deliver Brexit. He hates the Chequers agreement (he is in good company) and denounces it. He demands tax cuts, a certain way of titillating Tories. He engages in politics like no one else with any profile in his party, selecting targets and rounding on them. The announcement of his divorce makes his life more than ever like a reality TV show, orchestrated to enlarge further the cult of his personality. He prompts talk of a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership, and of his readiness to raise the banner of proper conservatism to the Tory masses. He has identified a vacuum in normal political activity; but that appears to be the limit of his insight.
After Johnson’s “suicide vest” remarks, colleagues queued up to attack him. He allegedly thrives on notoriety; but there comes a point when it sabotages rather than feeds ambition, and that may have been reached. Some MPs say they wouldn’t stay in a party he led, or promise to do all they can to stop him. Alan Duncan, who was one of Johnson’s underlings at the Foreign Office, has a default position of incontinent outrage. His observation that the suicide vest comment was “one of the most disgusting moments in British politics” was too hyperbolic for many colleagues; his assertion that “this is the political end of Boris Johnson” was not.
It is often stated that if Johnson were one of the two names put before the Tory membership in a leadership ballot, he would win. That takes no account of the second candidate: were it another Brexiteer, of a more thoughtful stamp, it might not be a foregone conclusion. But before even that a great hurdle must be overcome: Johnson must reach the final two. The temper of his colleagues after his latest exhibitionism suggests that will be a struggle. If he had 48 supporters in the parliamentary party – and Tory MPs think he hasn’t – they would have triggered a vote of no confidence by now.
There is a widespread feeling that that vote will come, because of May’s uninspiring leadership: but it will come after parliament has decided the life or death of the Chequers agreement – probably the latter – and it will not be occasioned by Johnson or his group of partisans. That the ineffable Nadine Dorries has emerged as one of his leading lieutenants reminded some MPs of the appearance of Tony Marlow, in striped summer blazer, lined up with other mavericks behind John Redwood for his 1995 leadership challenge against John Major. But at least Redwood was an homme sérieux with ideology and values, even if he attracted the party’s marginal figures. For his followers at Westminster, most of whom have successfully suspended disbelief, Johnson is the only person who can deliver a proper Brexit, and who can win them the next election. That view is far from unanimous.
Dominic Grieve and others may threaten to leave if Johnson prevails, but do so because they are sure their bluff won’t be called. Duncan is sure too, and his bluster is largely ornamental. They have observed Johnson as an MP and as a minister and know he is incapable of doing either job satisfactorily. Many Brexiteers share this view; what unites them with Remainers is a recognition that no one as volatile, incompetent, unreliable and dishonest as Johnson could be allowed to lead their party: therefore it will not happen. The Corbyn experience provides a living example of the plight of a party whose MPs despise their leader.
Knowing this can’t go on, wiser heads in the party are seeking a possible unity candidate: a Brexiteer, but one who does not frighten the horses. The acceptance by all but a few MPs of the result in 2016 makes the search easier. For MPs uninfected by the mania to install Johnson in Downing Street there is no hurry to change leaders; there is urgency, however, to find a new Brexit plan, as Steve Baker has intimated. With Labour riven, the Tories know it would be insanity to split permanently; a temporary split over Chequers is more likely, and a different matter. If the European Commission rejects a second plan most Tories would regard that as a good outcome, so Britain could trade with the EU on WTO terms. That might signal the end of May, launching a serious debate in the party about the future direction of the Tory leadership. It is a debate that does not augur well for Johnson.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph